(Silhouette image by deeisforda / sxc.hu)
ON 9 Aug 2008, the Malaysian Bar Council held a forum titled Conversion to Islam: Article 121(1A) of the Federal Constitution, Subashini and Shamala Revisited. Today, a year on, we remember the forum not for what was discussed. A 300-person demonstration gathered to protest the Bar Council’s apparent “anti-Islam attitude”, and some demonstrators even stormed into the forum, resulting in its premature ending.
This crowd comprised members of Muslim non-governmental organisations, as well as a bipartisan section of supporters from Umno, PAS, and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). One of the protest leaders, PKR Member of Parliament (MP) Zulkifli Noordin, was never disciplined by his party. This was even though Zulkifli’s actions starkly contradicted one of PKR’s basic tenets — pluralism. After all, the Bar Council forum was meant to look at ways in which Malaysians of all faiths could live in equitable compromise.
The MP is still unrepentant. He periodically speaks out on religious issues, taking positions less than ecumenical. On 17 July, Zulkifli released a statement criticising a recent Al Islam article, in which journalists attended a Catholic mass, received holy communion, and then spat out the communion to photograph.
“When you start encroaching [on] other religions, then you are inviting trouble,” Zulkifli wrote in his blog. “This is precisely what the two reporters have done. And I, for one, will not condone it, just like I do not condone the intrusion of the Bar Council into matters involving [the] Islamic religion,” he explained.
In the meantime, the party leadership remains silent about their elected representative.
Chong (Courtesy of Jonson
Chong) But some from PKR are uncomfortable with Zulkifli’s outbursts. PKR communications director Jonson Chong tells The Nut Graph that Zulkifli’s freedom to speak his mind is “precisely in line with our stand on freedom of expression”.
But Chong also admits that the Kulim-Bandar Baru MP’s statements show a “lack of initiative to discuss among ourselves, before going on a rant [about certain issues].” Chong recognises that this is an institutional issue, and one that needs to be dealt with in order for the party to consolidate its ideology and policies.
Young and democratic?
He points out that the 10-year-old PKR is “a young party”. Right after the watershed March 2008 general election, the party saw many new faces. “Our members come from many different backgrounds,” Chong explains, adding that differences in opinion are only natural.
Chong is confident that streamlining these different views can be done. The party, for example, is conducting internal conferences for its members to formulate policies on topics like religion and education.
Political analyst James Chin agrees that the freedom PKR affords to its members makes it a “much more democratic party”. He notes, however, that a line is crossed when such views become anti-democratic, as Zulkifli’s opinions on the discussions about Islam by non-Muslims were.
“Zulkifli should actually be in PAS, not PKR,” Chin quips, citing Zulkifli’s assertion that “I am a Muslim first, lawyer second; I am Muslim first, MP second”.
Zulkifli Political expediency
Chin speculates that PKR has done nothing to chastise Zulkifli out of political expediency. “They are more concerned with keeping [Zulkifli’s] parliamentary seat,” Chin notes.
Indeed, there were rumours in late 2008 that the MP was being courted by Umno. Should Zulkifli switch camps, the number of Pakatan Rakyat (PR) representatives in Parliament would decrease.
That PKR is reluctant to punish Zulkifli is clear. The party leadership has closed the Zulkifli versus Bar Council case. On 6 March, PKR deputy president Dr Syed Husin Ali said the matter “was settled internally some time last year (2008)”. As such, Syed Husin, who is also party disciplinary committee chairperson, said the matter should be laid to rest.
However, political scientist Wong Chin Huat argues that it is difficult to justify such secrecy. “His conduct was in the public sphere,” Wong notes.
Wong says the public has a legitimate expectation to be informed of PKR’s response to Zulkifli’s actions. “At the least, the Bar Council should be able to know [what has happened].”
Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, who was Malaysian Bar president when the August 2008 forum was held, describes PKR’s response to Zulkifli’s actions as “very, very disappointing”.
“To say that the matter was ‘settled internally’ is not acceptable for a party that values accountability and transparency,” Ambiga argues.
Rewarding bad behaviour
Ambiga Ambiga believes that the matter ought to have been dealt with openly and promptly. But not only has PKR failed to reprimand Zulkifli after a year, it appears to have rewarded him. When the PR coalition announced its 25 parliamentary ministerial committees on 2 July 2009, Zulkifli was named as shadow co-minister for higher education.
“What does that mean?” Ambiga asks, and then concludes: “There is no regard for the views of those at the receiving end [of Zulkifli’s conduct].”
Perhaps more troubling is that Zulkifli is just one example of PKR’s lack of discipline, and its inability to manage dissent while upholding its stated principles and negotiating within a coalition.
For example, take PKR vice-president Azmin Ali‘s call for the Selangor executive council to be reshuffled. It was effectively a public denouncement of fellow party member and Selangor Menteri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim’s leadership.
Then there was the case of the Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP) member Johari Kassim. Johari, a PKR-appointed councillor, was sacked — then suspended, after an apology — from the council after leading a boycott of the swearing-in of the new MPSP president on 4 June. The boycott caused a public altercation between PKR members and Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, who is also secretary-general of PKR’s ally, the DAP.
Wong says such instances suggest that PKR is not adequately institutionalised. “It shows that there are a lot of warlords in the party, and that there is very vague party-headquarters [authority],” Wong says.
“PKR hasn’t figured out how to institutionalise dissent within the party, and balance it with discipline. This needs serious attention. The party has to realise that people expect it to be in business in the long term.”
Wong Additionally, PKR’s problems are emblematic of those within the wider PR coalition. According to Wong, the MPSP tiff shows up the lack of an intra-coalition code of conduct and norms. “[The PR] has not established arbitration mechanisms at state and local levels. They only have them at the very top level,” Wong says.
“The PR needs to work towards being a stable coalition,” Wong argues. “And the first responsibility for that rests with (Opposition Leader) Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.”
Anwar is also PKR adviser. Unfortunately, from Zulkifli to Azmin to Johari, the de facto party leader has kept mum. It remains to be seen whether Anwar will set his own house in order or whether he is capable of doing so. But not doing so will only result in further indiscipline within the ranks.